A Death in the Family
On our roadtrip in northern Togo, we drove through a village called Kpele-Konda. We took a detour to reach it, but drove to the end of the village and back without stopping. “We cannot stop here,” said Johnson Senior. “It is the village of my father’s family! If we do stop, they will ask me for money.” On the way back to the main road, he cried “Oh, it’s Antoine!” and ducked his head. We saw the blur of a man in a brown shirt pass by. Further ahead, a swarm of bees clouded the road, and women passengers on taxi-moto flapped their hands above their heads while driving quickly through the stinging creatures.
This brief encounter made us rather curious about the village. What was there to avoid in Kpele-Konda? We imagined the hands outstretched towards the returning expat, asking for handouts, invoking the sense of communal obligation. But we only imagined.
A few weeks later, there was a death in the family. Johnson Senior informed us that we were going to Kpele-Konda to attend the funeral. It was the perfect occasion, he said. Plans had been made with an uncle in Lomé to travel to Kpele-Konda and stay at his house there. We prepared ourselves for a weekend in the village.
We departed on a Friday afternoon, picking up Uncle Raymond and another cousin on our way out of the city. We stopped on the road to buy yams (to make fufu) and Schnapps, and arrived in Kpele-Konda just after nightfall. Our car drove off the road onto a dirt track, just after the site of the swarm of bees. We headed in a diagonal line through some houses, passed an outdoor tent with rows of chairs laid out, then Uncle Raymond told the chauffeur to stop.
A handful of relatives scurried around to welcome us. Uncle Raymond’s village house was opened up, and we were told to enter and sit down. People began to arrive, and the drinks from our cooler box somehow found their way to the table. Dinner was served, and everyone helped themselves. We sat, somewhat awkwardly, surrounded by people who were apparently relatives. There were greetings, and meetings, and speeches in Ewe that seemed to follow a certain formula. We were later ushered to an outdoor shelter where male relatives sat on rows of wooden benches, for a meeting headed by a man leaning back in his chair who reminded us of Ray Charles: the head of the family. We went through the motions of ceremonies that involved spilling alcohol on the ground (libation). There was a lot of alcohol being handed around – Schnapps and sodabe (a potent moonshine) – and the male relatives’ faces shone in the dim light. We were told what to say, and intoned “yohhhhhh” at appropriate interjections in the formularised conversations.
Later that night, the deceased woman’s body was brought back from her husband’s to our side of the family. We went to visit the home, where we found relatives sitting in rows. Her husband sat quietly in the background in the corner.
A few hours later, the tam-tams were brought out and there was singing and dancing for the dead. The women danced in a circle, following different sequences of steps. They were occasionally joined by drunken men, whose eyes appeared fixated on the female bottom shaking in front of them in the circle. The dance could have been taken for joyful, until we saw falling tears glistening on the face of a woman who bore an unmistakeable resemblance to the deceased.
The evening ended late, but we had to set the alarm early for the next morning. Another day of rituals and ceremonies awaited.
The next day was the service at the church. Everyone walked to a barely-constructed church, many carrying plastic chairs to place under the grass shade outside. The priest arrived late in a shining white SUV, and an offering was taken for him. He shouted into the microphone in a seemingly interminable service, and more offerings were taken. Finally, a brass band led us out of the church and across the road to the overgrown cemetery, where dramatic wailing and tears accompanied the deceased woman into the ground.
When we arrived in the village, it seemed as if certain people scurried to meet us. “Désiré!” they cried in surprise at the sight of Johnson Senior. Strangers tried to explain their relation to us: an uncle, a brother, the sister of a brother. The confusing and made-up pieces of the paternal grandfather’s side of the family came together a bit. A few men surrounded us and followed us everywhere throughout the weekend. Was it an expression of joy and affection for a long-lost relative?
It had been 14 years since Johnson Senior had been to Kpele-Konda. Nobody had known whether he was still alive, where he was living, or how he was doing – and nobody had ever tried to find out. Instead, what the long absence seemed to indicate was that his indebtedness to the family had grown. He was instructed to contribute money for the funeral (and the many funerals that had passed in the interim) and to purchase two bottles of Schnapps, 40 litres of palm wine, and a goat for slaughter. He asked us to carry for him an envelope full of money, which emptied at an astonishing rate. Certain relatives addressed us as “grand-frère” despite the fact that they were much older – a sure sign that a request for help would follow. Shining eyes followed our cooler box around, waiting for it to be opened. We were encouraged to come back to the village to have our traditional wedding there. “Will we have to pay money to the family, too?” we asked. “Yes!” the relatives replied with glowing smiles, apparently missing the point.
On Sunday, we woke up early to go the cemetery and perform libation over the family tombs, the spilling of alcohol meant to symbolize greeting the ancestors. One of the bottles of Schnapps purchased by Johnson Senior had been reserved for this purpose. However, before we departed, there was a long and heated discussion amongst the men of the family – who wanted to save some of the alcohol for themselves. They slowly poured the Schnapps from one bottle into another, taking about 45 minutes to agree on the right level. We eventually went to the cemetery with about 1/3 of the bottle. The libation went quickly and the libateur seemed hung over and sad to throw so much alcohol on the ground. Once finished, we returned to drink with Ray Charles – the Schnapps was quickly finished, then the men set to work on the 40 litres of palm wine. Perhaps the libation – like other ceremonies – was just a good excuse to get drunk.
The weekend was coming to an end. The handful of houses felt like they were closing in on us. The village felt like a tiny microcosm of the world, in which human relations were magnified and intensified to an unbearable degree. We had been called both famille and yovo (foreigner), and the pressure of feeling like neither had pushed us into a fight of our own. It takes just a few small steps for a family to become like strangers. While the goat was still being distributed and eaten, we left to drive back to Lomé, feeling relieved. We don’t know when we’ll go back to Kpele-Konda again, if ever.